Before they built the world’s first powered, heavier-than-air, and controllable aircraft, Wilbur and Orville Wright were two ordinary brothers from the Midwest who possessed nothing more than natural talent, ambition, and imagination. Here are 17 uplifting facts about the siblings who made human flight possible.
April 16, 1867, Millville, Indiana
May 30, 1912, Dayton, Ohio
August 19, 1871, Dayton, Ohio
January 30, 1948, Dayton, Ohio
1. A toy piqued the Wright brothers’ passion.
Wilbur and Orville Wright were fascinated by flight from an early age. They attributed their interest in aviation to a small helicopter toy that their father Milton, a church bishop, brought back from his travels in France. Fashioned from a stick, two propellers, and rubber bands, the toy was crudely made. Nevertheless, it galvanized their quest to someday make their very own flying machine.
2. Their genius was genetic.
While they were inspired by their father’s toy, the Wright brothers inherited their mechanical savvy from their mother, Susan Koerner Wright. She could reportedly make anything, be it a sled or another toy, by hand. “Susan’s father, he was a carriage maker, and so, in her environment she was around wood-working tools, improvising, being creative, experimenting with new ways. It’d be logical to think that that’s just who she was,” Mackensie Wittmer, a program manager with the National Aviation Heritage Alliance, told WYSO News in 2018.
3. Curiosity was encouraged in the Wright home.
“We were lucky enough to grow up in an environment where there was always much encouragement to children to pursue intellectual interests; to investigate whatever aroused curiosity,” Orville wrote years after the flight that made the brothers famous. “In a different kind of environment, our curiosity might have been nipped long before it could have borne fruit.”
4. The Wright brothers were proud Midwesterners.
The Wright brothers spent their formative years in Dayton, Ohio. Later in life, Wilbur said his advice for those seeking success would be to “pick out a good father and mother, and begin life in Ohio.”
5. They never graduated high school.
While the Wright brothers were undoubtedly bright, neither of them ever earned his high school diploma. The family moved from Richmond, Indiana, where Wilbur attended high school, to Dayton, Ohio, in 1884, before Wilbur could attend his commencement ceremony. He intended to go to college, but couldn’t due to a hockey injury. Orville, meanwhile, didn’t have the credits he needed to graduate, but that ultimately didn’t worry him—he had already set his sights on becoming a printer.
6. The Wright brothers once published a newspaper.
Before they were inventors, the Wright brothers were newspaper publishers. When he was 15 years old, Orville launched his own print shop from behind his house and he and Wilber began publishing The West Side News, a small-town neighborhood paper. It eventually became profitable, and Orville moved the fledgling publication to a rented space downtown. In time, Orville and Wilbur ceased producing The West Side News—which they’d renamed The Evening Item—to focus on other projects.
7. They made a foray into the bicycle business.
One of these projects was a bike store called the Wright Cycle Company, where Wilbur and Orville fixed clients’ bicycles and sold their own designs. The fledgling business grew into a profitable enterprise, which eventually helped the Wright brothers fund their flight designs. They also built all of their aircraft in that Dayton, Ohio, bicycle shop, which, along with the Wright Brothers’ home, was later purchased by Henry Ford and moved to Michigan.
8. “Scrapping” was a big part of the Wright brothers’ creative process.
“From the time we were little children my brother Orville and myself lived together,” Wilbur said. “We usually owned all of our toys in the common, talked over our thoughts and aspirations so that nearly everything that was done in our lives has been the result of conversations, suggestions, and discussion between us.” With all that time spent together, it’s no wonder that arguments—sometimes heated—would break out. But rather than hindering them, debate was a huge part of the Wright brothers’ process and, in the words of the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum website, “essential to their inventive success.” They called it “scrapping.”
9. They were autodidacts.
The Wright brothers’ lifelong interest in flight peaked after they witnessed a successive series of aeronautical milestones: the gliding flights of German aviator Otto Lilienthal; the flying of an uncrewed steam-powered fixed-wing model aircraft by Smithsonian Institution Secretary Samuel Langley; and the glider test flights of Chicago engineer Octave Chanute. By 1899, Wilbur sat down and wrote to the Smithsonian, asking them to send him literature on aeronatics. He was convinced, he wrote, “that human flight is possible and practical.” Once he received the books, he and Orville began studying the science of flight.
10. They chose to fly in Kitty Hawk because it provided wind, soft sand, and privacy.
The Wright brothers began building prototypes and eventually traveled to Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, in 1902 to test a full-size, two-winged glider with a moveable rudder. They chose this location thanks in part to their correspondence with Octave Chanute, who advised them in a letter to select a windy place with soft grounds. It was also private, which allowed them to launch their aircrafts with little public interference.
11. The Wright brothers achieved four successful flights with their first airplane design.
The Wright brothers started testing various wing designs and spent the next few years perfecting their evolving vision for a heavier-than-air flying machine. In the winter of 1903, they returned to Kitty Hawk with their final model, the 1903 Wright Flyer. To see who would pilot the craft first, the brothers flipped a coin—and Wilbur won. His initial flight took place on December 14 but ended with a crash. Three days later, on December 17, 1903, Orville hopped into the pilot seat of the repaired Flyer and flew for 120 feet. After that, the brothers took turns and made three more brief flights, one of which lasted for 59 seconds and reached 852 feet with Wilbur behind the controls.
12. The 1903 Wright Flyer never took to the skies again ...
Before the brothers could embark on their final flight, a heavy wind caused the plane to flip several times. Because of the resulting damage, it never flew again. It eventually found a permanent home in the Smithsonian’s Air & Space Museum—even though Orville originally refused to donate it to the institution because it claimed that Smithsonian Secretary Langley’s own aircraft experiment was the first machine capable of sustained free flight.
13. … but pieces of it have been to space.
When Neil Armstrong took his giant leap on the moon alongside Buzz Aldrin in July 1969, he carried with him a swatch of fabric from the 1903 Flyer’s left wing and a piece of its wooden propeller inside his spacesuit. That wasn’t the last time pieces of the craft left Earth: A small piece of fabric was also attached to Ingenuity, a small chopper that went to Mars as part of NASA’s Perseverance rover.
14. The press initially ignored the Kitty Hawk flights.
Despite the brothers’ monumental achievement, the Dayton Journal didn’t think their short flights were important enough to cover. The Virginia Pilot ended up catching wind of the story, however, and they printed an error-ridden account that was picked up by several other papers. Eventually, the Dayton Journal wrote up an official—and accurate—story.
15. The brothers shared a close bond ...
Although the Wright brothers weren’t twins, they certainly lived like they were. They worked side by side six days a week, and shared the same residence, meals, and bank account. They also enjoyed mutual interests, like music and cooking. Neither brother ever married, either. Orville said it was Wilbur’s job, as the older sibling, to get hitched first. Meanwhile, Wilbur said he “had no time for a wife.” In any case, the two became successful businessmen, scoring aviation contracts both domestically and abroad.
16. … but were opposites in many ways.
Although they were much alike, each Wright brother was his own person. As the older brother, Wilbur was more serious and taciturn. He possessed a phenomenal memory, and was generally consumed by his thoughts. Meanwhile, Orville was positive, upbeat, and talkative, although very bashful in public. While Wilbur spearheaded the brothers’ business endeavors, they wouldn’t have been possible without Orville’s mechanical—and entrepreneurial—savvy.
17. Ohio and North Carolina fight over the Wright brothers’ legacy.
Since the Wright brothers split their experiments between Ohio and North Carolina, both states claim their accomplishments as their own. Ohio calls itself the “Birthplace of Aviation,” although the nickname also stems from the fact that a number of astronauts hail from there as well. Meanwhile, North Carolina’s license plates are emblazoned with the words First In Flight.
A version of this article ran in 2015; it has been updated for 2023.